BY Art Thiel 07:46AM 06/28/2018

Thiel: 10 years gone, Sonics’ return still a speck

Ten years ago Monday, the City Council made the mistake of letting go the civic asset of its NBA franchise. It likely will be another seven years before another one returns.

James Harden this week joined Kevin Durant as an NBA Most Valuable Player. / Wiki Commons

The award this week of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy to Houston’s James Harden produced some locally depressing poignancy, at least if you’re in the sepia-toned crowd who remembers when Seattle had an NBA franchise.

Harden was the third member of the 2009-12 Prairie Pirates (whom some continue to call the Oklahoma Thunder) to have won an MVP award.

He follows Kevin Durant (2013-14 season) and Russell Westbrook (2016-17). In hindsight, the Pirates/Thunder accumulated a staggering amount of talent, thanks in no small part to the collapse and subsequent 2006 sellout of the Sonics franchise by owner Howard Schultz.

That the Thunder failed to win an NBA title with three of the NBA’s top 10 players is a small consolation to Seattle fans still carrying a mad-on over the hijacking. Others who should be irked are Oklahoma City fans. But they at least could enjoy a Finals appearance, four Western Conference finals and playoffs in eight of the 10 seasons in Oklahoma City.

Yes, it’s been a decade. The anniversary is Monday. There will be no balloons and cake.

On July 2, 2008,  shortly before U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman was to render her verdict in the six-day trial to prevent the franchise owners from breaking their KeyArena lease two years early, Mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle City Council caved.

Rather than playing out its strong hand in a simple landlord-tenant dispute, the city settled for $45 million from Clay Bennett and partners, mostly to pay off the mortgage on the 1995 remodel. The Sonics — who drafted Durant out of Texas with the second pick in 2007, and Westbrook out of UCLA with the fourth pick in 2008, and subsequently Harden of Arizona State with the third pick in 2009 — were gone after 41 years.

Without re-litigating the merits and demerits of the legal case and the political decision, the basketball perspective after 10 years is remarkable.

The Sonics made the playoffs in 2005, were sold in 2006 and in 2007 finished 20-62, the worst record in club history — the first of three awful seasons that produced three franchise-making players. The franchise was the NBA paradigm for tanking.

New general manager Sam Presti was given carte blanche to tear down the roster without regard to public relations and fans’ irritation. The NBA was tacitly complicit in the Seattle hoop-icide, knowing that relocation to a smaller but more desperate market was underway.

The final two ghastly years in Seattle helped bring Durant and Westbrook, and the first year in OKC, a 23-59 finish, produced Harden. Next season, the Thunder won 50 games, and by 2011-12 made the Finals, where OKC was thwarted when LeBron James won his first title with the Miami Heat.

Had the council 10 years ago not peed down its collective leg, it’s within reason to speculate that much of that hoops success could have been in Seattle.

Four months after the settlement, the nation was in the grips of the Great Recession. The economic collapse nearly bankrupted Bennett’s moneybags, natural-gas magnate Aubrey McClendon, who was down to selling off his wine collection.

It’s plausible that the panic would have forced the Okies to abandon relocation plans and sell the franchise to then-Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer, a hoop-head who in 2014 bought the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion.

Yes, there’s a lot of if-then in such speculation. What is more certain is that after a decade, a succession of mayors, council members and city staffers have put in thousands of hours seeking a way to make up for the 2008 mistake and return the NBA to Seattle.

So far, bupkis.

Seattle has lived out one of the hoariest bromides in the sports business: To lose a franchise is much easier than to regain one.

There is, of course, a private commitment in place to try to bring back the NBA. Oak View Group of Los Angeles has committed more than $600 million to remake the 56-year-old arena into a world-class venue, an offer at least as astonishing as the growth in the past decade of the urban village that surrounds Seattle Center.

How to reconcile the parallel astonishments is the formidable task of Oak View CEO Tim Leiweke, who has a long track record of successful arena development. He has in hand a memorandum of understanding with a city council that is more than eager to get the perpetual arena/center financial headache off its agenda with the rare gift of private money for a public building.

But if Leiweke pulls off the hyper-aggressive feat to open in October 2020, the first league into the building will be the NHL, not the NBA.

The NHL was ready to expand, and did so splendidly the past season with its 31st team. The Las Vegas Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup finals. The promise from NHL owners was to keep the same expansion formula for the 32nd team, which they hope will be Seattle in 2020, for a fee of $650 million. Good news for hockey fans.

But the NBA, far more successful financially, has expressed no desire to expand with two more teams taking bites from the revenue pie. The most informed speculation is the league will not consider growing until after the 2024-25 season. That’s when its TV contracts, worth $24 billion over nine years, expire (in contrast, the NHL’s contracts over the same span with Rogers in Canada and NBC are worth a combined $7.2 billion).

Presuming an increase in broadcast/streaming revenues, plus the likely huge, one-time  fees due from the expansion-team owners, the NBA may deign to allow Seattle and perhaps Mexico City to genuflect and kiss its ring. The Seattle wait then would have lasted 18 years.

But by 2025-26, who knows about the economic/political condition of Seattle, the NBA and the nation? You may have noticed lately that forecasts for the national condition are less long term and more day to day. The 2025 horizon seems so distant, the NBA in Seattle appears as a speck.

So many unknowables have to happen in sequence — including Oak View’s willingness to sacrifice another 41-plus dates to the NBA during the more lucrative indoor-concert season that coincides with the winter-team calendars — that upon the sad anniversary, it remains difficult to visualize an NBA future.

Still, to use a phrase repeated often over the past decade, it could happen.

It’s just that things today would have been so much easier had the decision 10 years go been made to keep a civic asset, eliminating the compulsion for perpetual tail-chasing.



  • Kevin Lynch

    Well said.


    When the NBA and Stern allowed and actually supported the theft of the Sonics I quit everything that had an NBA logo. No watching on TV. No T shirts, No hats. No NOTHIN!!

    Now 10 years later I’m still with it. I’m old and remember the days back to Bob Rule, Dick Snider, Slick, “Fat” Freddie. etc.

    In my view, The NBA is broken. The LAST thing it is is FANtastic. Just more greed from more greedy people who say one thing and do another. I am still true. I am still going strong with my boycott. If it has an NBA logo I don’t want anything to do with it.

    • art thiel

      Good to hear from someone with the courage of his convictions. You are not alone on this town, but not a majority. Lots of people want their hoops back.


        I have no problems with those who want the NBA back in town. I know you do Art. (More story lines with them) May just be old age bitterness where some kid out of high school who was gifted with great legs can make 20 million a year and can’t make a free throw more often than they miss.

        Stern really put a bad taste in my mouth for the NBA. I don’t think any amount of candy can sweeten what he and the OKC lying Blunder owners did to Seattle.

        Time may heal wounds but it can’t change what once was and the history of it all. I used to think Nobody could ever take over for Bob Blackburn but “Good Golly Miss Molly” along came Kevin Calabro. He was better. (And Bob Blackburn was wonderful)

        I won’t say the NBA will never be as good as it once was. I was young and the world hadn’t shown me it’s true colors yet. I’m a realist. No longer a dreamer. Stern was the reality of the NBA. His ways and his people. Seattle fans swept away like a pile of dust.

        The reality is what will really bring back the NBA to Seattle?? $$$$ and LOTS of it. I believe Seattle was right to not allow the NBA to hold fans and tax payers hostage for a new arena for his team. (NOT “Our” team) Sure Sonics fans lost every bit of dear history to a place (OKC) that couldn’t care less about it. Only us fans did care because everything else was only about $$$$. LOTS of $$$$. NBA is FANtastic?? I don’t think so. I don’t see that changing,,,,, ever. They may be back but it won’t be because of the quality of Seattle fans. It will be the Quantity of $$$ available.

        Keep up the great work Art.


  • Parts

    The NBA is dead to me.

    • art thiel

      Unfortunately, given the ticket prices and salaries, the NBA has managed to flourish.

  • Alan Harrison

    Even I have trouble swallowing the idea that the Sonics were a “civic asset” in 2008. It was fun to have a pro basketball team nearby, but, except for the many diehards, I think people are somewhat over a league in which 90% of its members are out of the championship race on day 1 of the season. What the NHL has proven, over and over again, is that almost every team (except the Maple Leafs, for some reason) has a chance to go all the way. The same cannot be said of the NBA. And the NBA comes with the continual cloud of alleged and real game-fixing (which seems to be frighteningly easy). I suppose it depends on the point of view – the NY Rangers were taunted by chants of “Nine-Teen For-Ty” for years, both from opposing fans in Long Island and their own at MSG. But here, we celebrate 1979 and 1995 (M’s) as quasi-current events proving worth. Odd from both cities.

    • Effzee

      Game fixing by refs would be so easy, its absurd to think it doesn’t happen. You don’t even have to do it overtly. In baseball, use the strike zone. In basketball, give a key player a few quick fouls to get them on the bench. In football, call a phantom holding penalty to wipe out a big play. Its BS to dismiss these things by saying “You just have to overcome bad calls.” TD passes in the Super Bowl are not easy to replicate when they are wiped out by penalties. Ask Holmgren about that one.

      • art thiel

        Where any fix comes in is when officials, without necessarily being told, understand the best interests of the league are served when the NBA Finals feature Jordan v. Barkley instead of Jordan against the Sonics.

        But that was in the 80s and early 90s when the league was more desperate than now.

        • Effzee

          I think there is a hidden network of Vegas/Atlantic City mob influence, connections to politicians, and corporate/mass media profits going on in the background that will one day become exposed. Gambling, gambling addictions of the refs, mob money, and the threat of thugs breaking legs have created a much more insidious problem across all major money-making sports than we can comprehend yet.

          • art thiel

            Quite the grassy knoll theory, Effzee. If only you had a Zapruder film.

        • Seattle Ray

          I watched the Cavaliers holding other players in front of refs during the playoffs. The only time I watch NBA. It is like the Trump’s WWE out there.

          • Effzee

            To anyone not wearing blinders to it, its been obvious for decades.

    • art thiel

      All longtime pro franchises are civic assets, some more than others. They shouldn’t be squandered. The NHL has somewhat more parity, but their history with six teams for so long skews the distribution of titles.

      I keep saying I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, then I remember the 1993 Suns-Sonics playoff series.

      • Seattle Ray

        64 free throws for the Suns in game 7! Most of the Sonics fouled out by the 4th quarter for just breathing to hard on their opponents.

  • Effzee

    Still can’t understand why anyone would grovel at the feet of a league that orchestrates everything from player movement to game outcomes, which tried to extort an arena from taxpayers, then underhandedly extracted the franchise from the city when the city refused to cower to their smarmy, unethical business practices. To clamor for the “return” of the Sonics is to totally abandon healthy life principles. Not to mention it would not be a “return” at all, but instead a replacement franchise with no history, usurping the name of a beloved team from the past to emotionally manipulate the would-be fan base.

    • art thiel

      No argument here with your logic. But most of sports fandom is not logical but emotional. Most fans want to feel, not think.

    • Kirkland

      The second Cleveland Browns got to keep the original records, stats and championships in their 1999 rebirth (the Ravens are now regarded as a 1995 expansion team). Also, when the New Orleans Hornets became the Pelicans a few years ago, they gave the Hornets name and history to the Charlotte Bobcats. A new Sonics would likely be credited as taking a hiatus, and they could claim the 1979 title, the retired numbers, etc., as a make-good for the fans.

      • Effzee

        Exactly my point. Makes me want to puke.

        • Kirkland

          Grab the airsick bag, then. I’m totally fine with it. Heck, the Sounders count their NASL/USL history as additions to their MLS history, as do the Timbers, Whitecaps, and Earthquakes among others.

          • Effzee

            Dude. You’re talking about soccer. There are like 72 different leagues. I’m talking about a “major” sport. Ask Cleveland Browns fans if they’d rather have the old Browns over the new Browns.

  • Husky73

    The Sonics arrived when I was in high school. I was a great fan of the team and the league. I cheered for Bob Rule (“The Golden One”) and Lenny Wilkens. I saw Tom Meschery take a swing at Wilt. I rejoiced when Gus Williams tossed the ball in the air as the Sonics won the NBA title. I even liked George Karl. Now….I don’t miss the Sonics or the NBA at all. I would much rather attend (among the few) a Seattle U game at KeyArena, or a Husky-Oregon State battle than pay $100 for a seat in the rafters to a lackluster NBA game.

    • art thiel

      I think many in this town saw the pro sports underbelly, and turned away.

  • Joe_Fan

    I am a former member of the Super Sonics fan club in the late 1960s, and went to many, many games throughout the 1970s including the championship season. At this point I just don’t care about the NBA. If it ever does comes back it is irreverent. Perhaps the younger folks will latch on and have enthusiasm, but for me, the NBA is done.

    • art thiel

      You’re right — the older you are, the less enchanted you are with the NBA. Too many misdeeds. Kids and newcomers can’t know the bitterness.

  • Mark Stratton

    Given the fecklessness of the current mayor/city council, it might be a good thing that expansion is 7-8 years away. No doubt they would find a way to screw it up.

    • art thiel

      Given our recent history, we could say that the return of the NBA is eight mayors away.

  • rosetta_stoned

    Haven’t watched an NBA game since 2008. And never will again.
    The NBA couldn’t be more dead to me.

    • art thiel

      If the NBA stays gone long enough, no one will be around who remembers why your bitterness is so visceral.

  • Matt712

    The value proposition of a premium price for a mediocre product in a glamorous setting is lost on me. Yes, I’m talking about the NBA. And Starbucks.

    • art thiel

      I’m reading a lot of rejection here. Is anyone out there an advocate?

      • Kirkland

        When I go to bars in the winter, the NBA is plastered over the TVs, and people are watching them. They’re out there.

  • WestCoastBias79

    I occasionally hate watch the NBA late in the playoffs, mostly because watching Durant and Harden go at each other on different teams, then Durant winning rings irks the Okies. I also take solace in them probably having a Milwaukee Bucks ceiling for the rest of their years. In the age of super teams, no one is building one and getting his millionaire basketbro buddies to move to Oklahoma. Also, hitting on three drafts with Durant, Harden, Westbrook is once in a lifetime kind of stuff. They won’t hit another like that in my lifetime.

    Still haven’t had a sip of Starbucks, and still have palpable disdain for Stern and Shultz. I actually don’t really have a strong opinion on Bennett. He was just a guy trying to get a team for his city, it’s the league conspiring with him because Stern felt disrespected, Shultz being a greedy moron, and Nickels being a coward that fires me up.

    • art thiel

      As I’ve written before, I’m down most on Schultz because he betrayed his own words and deeds when the going got tough on funding another arena. Stern was a petty tyrant who took personal umbrage at Seattle’s absence of genuflection.

      • Effzee

        All true. But never forget it was Wally Walker who drove the franchise into the ground and killed the fanbase, so that it got to a point where there was not significant enough a fan outcry to move the local politicians. Not saying it would have made a difference with the city council, but when the roster and fanbase are on life support already, its much easier to make the argument that nobody really cares anyways. “More important things” and all.

    • Seattle Ray

      Actually Bennett and Stern were friends and Bennett is in charge of the owners relocation committee. Bennett knew he was lying to Seattle about keeping the Sonics here. Just like our Business man and Chief… I guess lies and cheat is a part of business. It is just part of making profits.
      Shultz had 10 other owners that out voted him to sell team. Just like the Nordstrom s selling the Seahawks to Bering in the 80s when family members out voted the head relative that wanted to keep it. Forced the sell.

  • Ken S.

    And for all of those 10 years after Schulz’s blunder I still haven’t had a cup from Starbucks. I have managed to ‘help’ friends and family to find a better cup of coffee – Seattle’s Best. Good brew!Oh yeah, I also haven’t taken in an NBA game – regular or playoff in all those 10 years.Schulz can kiss my royal pink azz! He ain’t gettin a dime out of me. Like BB46BB I’m from a bygone era, I started watching and attending Sonics games when Wilkins was a player. Managed to finagle finals tickets in those wonderful 2 years of back-to-back finals trips. Got to see 3 finals in those 2 years.Whether Seattle gets another stab at an NBA team or not does not interest me much. And FWIW the Seahawks are starting to get the same (non)attention from me. Like I told you before, Art, bringing politics into the game is a mistake and will kill it. The knee-takers can have at it all they want, inside or outside the clubhouse, it’s the act of taking a knee, not where you take it, sends the same message. I’m a Viet Nam vet, I see the knee shit as crapping on the flag & country, and everyone who served under it, and those who love it.I know the arguments, and couldn’t care less. My mind is made up on this matter. Either keep politics out of the games or there won’t be any games. At least for me, and I’m not alone in that regard. I know a lot of vets and none of them are appreciative of the social justice warriors taking a knee.

    • art thiel

      Politics has always been a part sports, Ken. You just don’t like the particular nature of the current version. You might ask some of your fellow Nam vets whether threy support peaceful protest. The ones I know/knew had first hand experience with the consequences of government malfeasance and incompetence.

  • Kirkland

    I am not an NBA fan, but surrendering one of the most visible representations of your city in just two years was ruinous for civic pride, and I’m still pissed off. Even in the Great Recession, erasing the relatively mere $40M arena debt wasn’t worth it; what’s wrong with standing up for your city? Durkan at least understands the emotional value of sports as a civic sharing avenue (see her jerseys at these sports announcements), which Nickels and Murray didn’t. As for the non-sports fans who thought the Sonics leaving would open up the city to concentrate on other city issues, as one interviewee in the P.I. said after the move … how did that work out? And look at the effort the pols have spent trying to get winter sports back.

    Though I’m all in on the NHL (specifically at SoDo, but that’s another story), I dearly would love the Sonics to return to correct that swindle, the arena nonsense that’s followed, and the misery the Sonics fans have underwent since. When Montreal Expos fans, of all people, tell me “You guys got screwed”, that says a lot.